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Ethical practice for the professional social worker involves the resolution of challenges and difficulties that arise in professional practice. Social workers can be faced with making decisions that contain competing principles where any alternative or choice has an undesirable outcome. The AASW Code of Ethics contains values, ethical principles and responsibilities, and guidelines for decision making, but it does not provide easy formulas or absolute answers. Decision making is a rational process that includes an assessment of risks and benefits to all people involved. Systematic guidelines and decision making models may offer a logical approach to this process, but ultimately decisions are made on the judgments and perspectives of the social worker or the collective professional team. Social workers need the virtues of strength, integrity and moral courage to face such challenges. That moral courage comes from confidence in critical reasoning and ethical decision making, and a good working knowledge of ethical theory can help guide that.

For the purpose of this paper I will focus on one social work client group; women experiencing violence perpetrated by a male partner. Different ethical theories will be identified and discussed, and then applied to issues emerging from this client group to demonstrate their influence in guiding ethical decision making.

Domestic violence against women is a long standing serious issue in Australia. Current statistics reveal that between 80-100 women are killed every year by a male partner and 1 in 3 women report abuse by a male partner in their lifetime (2016). Safety, fear, social perception, abuse, children and financial dependency can all be contributing factors to a woman’s reluctance to leave these violent relationship.2012). This can create an immense challenge for the social worker as they are committed to human rights and social justice, but also embrace the principle of client self-determination. xxxxxxxx (2011), state that social workers are to support, assist, and advocate for those who are affected by domestic and family violence and “seek to empower family members to take control of their lives and move beyond the effects of domestic and family violence” ( ).

When faced with these difficulties, social workers are guided by the theory of ethics, which is based on the work of philosophers over many centuries. (1993) describes two main ethical theories for developing strategies to approach these problems. Deontological, which emphasizes adherence to rules and a ‘sense of duty’, and teleology (consequentialism), which means weighing up the potential harms and benefits of all people involved before making a decision. A common example of these in contrast would be lying. Deontology teaches that a social worker must always tell the truth, regardless of the outcome, and consequentialism would be more foucsed on the outcome rather than the principle.

The first ethical theory is from the eighteenth-century German philosopher ( ). Kant discussed two types of duties in his teachings: hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives. A hypothetical imperative is a social work duty that is required to accomplish specific goals, it is something that is done to achieve an end. In social work, we may look at the hypothetical duty of

a social worker to achieve success and help women in violent relationships by practicing by the code of ethics. However, in real professional practice that may prove to be challenging when faced with the complexity of domestic violence issues. Social workers need to make decisions about what they think is best for the client, the organisation, the community, other people and themselves, but they also need to respect their clients decision making, even if they disagree with that decision. Dilemmas arise when social workers suspect clients are making decisions based on fear and anxiety.

A categorical imperative in deontology is an unconditional rule or duty. The duty remains the same regardless of the impact on others and must be done. One example in social work is if enough evidence exists, to report male perpetrators threatening to kill clients or others to the police. Social workers take a paternalistic approach and interfere with self-determination for the good of the client. This is a duty regardless of the outcome or the threat to the therapeutic relationship. Safety is a primary concern when an identifiable risk of death can be prevented and doesn’t necessarily need to be in a policy written by the employing organisation. Respecting a client’s right to self-determination and acting on our sense of duty to protect, a social worker needs to weigh and consider the potential benefits of intervention against the potential risks and danger. But in the face of evidence of this danger, social workers need to take action. Social workers might find it helpful when making such ethical decisions to use the ranking of ethical principles as redrawn below (2000).

This model clearly shows that ‘protection of life’ outranks ‘privacy and confidentially’ to the client.

Kantian ethics principles include ‘respect for persons’ as self-determining beings. This means social workers must respect the client’s decision if a woman does not disclose violence or does not want to leave the relationship. This is an ethical difficulty but it is important to be patient.

000(8) states the client’s agenda must take precedence during these times and that “patience is critical to making well thought out and considerate decisions” (85). This highlights the

importance for the social worker to build self- esteem, educate about what a healthy relationship is and also what is considered domestic abuse and the impact it has. Social workers need to empower women with knowledge and educate about community resources and domestic violence service providers in the local community.

The Kantian principle of ‘respect for persons’ also includes respect for a person’s cultural, spiritual and family values. It is important for a social worker to become engaged in family perspectives on these values and not just impose their own judgements. However, being respectful of cultures does not mean turning a blind eye to oppression and abuse; ethically, safety is always the social worker’s primary objective. So, any values that are used to oppress, hurt and abuse women in the name of culture or religion may influence a social worker to prioritise the client’s safety over their right to self-determination. However, if the client is already aware of the danger that she is in, it may be ethically challenging for the social worker to cease feeling any responsibility or ethical obligations to intervene. Kantian ethics may be contradicting here depending on the individual social worker’s perspective. On the one hand, we need to uphold a women’s right to self-determination, and on the other hand we may feel it is our “duty” to intervene regardless.

A core ethical principle is preventing harm to clients. As social workers can’t always foresee when safety concerns may cause confidentiality breaches, they should always adhere to ethical practice to minimize any damage to the therapeutic relationship with clients. Social workers should always explain at the beginning of treatment what are the limits of confidentiality and what issues would be serious enough to bring obligation to report, even when not mandated to do so. Always make assessments for domestic violence, encourage discussions about the availability of certain resources and if possible develop a safety plan and a plan to reduce the potential for future violence. Even when reporting has been decided on, social workers need to empower clients by upholding their right to self-determination by encouraging them to report the incident themselves.

Kant suggests that we need to consider the implications of our actions as if they were universal. Breaking client confidentiality without due cause or justification would be an enormous breach of trust and be significantly detrimental to the client/ social worker relationship. Deontological ethics would consider the implications of all social workers breaking the confidentiality of their clients without good reason. The therapeutic relationships would cease to be beneficial, domestic violence victims would not feel safe reaching out, and the prospect of potentially helping women in genuine need would be crushed. To break the cycle of violence, firstly women need to feel safe in disclosure and have trust in the therapeutic relationship. It’s only then, through that relationship that social workers can foster empowerment and self-determination.

The next major group of theories is teleogical or consequentialist ethical theory. This approach to ethical choices determines decisions based on the goodness of the consequences after weighing and exploring all potential outcomes. The effect on the woman, her children, her security, her financial situation, secure accommodation, the agency and damage to the therapeutic relationship are all important issues to consider along with the emotional impact on the clients well-being.

(2013) explore the multitude of reasons and perceptions shared by women in these vulnerable positions. They state “the decisions to stay and leave are complex and change with social and personal circumstances” (p58). The post traumatic effects of violence and abuse may also create barriers.

Joshua ( 2014) discusses a hypothetical case to demonstrate the different perspectives that can be held by different social workers on the same issue (p.43). In this case the client has a broken jaw and has a genuine fear of her partner hurting her and her children. She is ready to leave him because she has finally saved enough money, but she has saved that money by committing serious welfare fraud. Our ethical responsibilities as professionals, to the profession, and to society at large are all to be considered. Consequentialist ethics allow different people to weigh different factors differently based on their own values and beliefs. One social worker might place considerable emphasis on the importance of client privacy, whereas another practitioner might place more value on the importance of respect for the law ( p.68). This one example illustrates the complexity social workers are faced with when facing ethical dilemmas and the importance of adhering to professional values.

To completely explore and apply consequentialist ethics, a decision-making model should be considered and explored. Decision-making models encourage systematic, comprehensive, and analytical thinking about the range of factors to be considered.

One common approach is the five-step ETHIC model designed by Congress (2002, originally developed 1999).

Two                                                                                                                                                                              other authors

(())) have designed an inclusive circular model including core social work values, “based on four interlinked platforms” for better decision making – which are accountability, consultation, cultural sensitivity, and critical reflection ).

•Defining the ethical dilemma;

•Mapping legitimacy (who has a legitimate stake in the decision-making process);

•Gathering information;

•Assessing alternative approaches and actions; and

•Critical analysis and evaluation.

Whichever model is used, it is imperative to seek consultation with peers or supervisors before attempting to resolve an ethical dilemma. Input from others may offer new suggestions and avenues for exploration as the previous experience of others or the team as a collective can offer an immeasurable wisdom.

Knowledge of ethical theories can help guide ethical decision making, but ultimately the judgment call is made by the social worker. “Ethical decision making assumes that social workers are active moral agents engaged in making considered decisions based not only on regulations, laws, and codes, but also on their appraisal of the relevant professional values at stake and evaluations of people's rights, needs, and interests” ( 24). 

The ethical decision making process can be complex and challenging and “there are no answers, only solutions” (). Knowledge of ethical theories helps us to frame and make those judgement calls, but experience through time, and advice and guidance from experienced colleagues also makes invaluable contributions. Social workers need to be able to ethically justify their judgement calls, and professional confidence in their ethical decision making process is the only way to ensure ………

 

the seond examplars

The AASW code of ethics states that the role of social work is to be involved in bringing about social change, problem solving in human relationships and empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing (2016). In the area of social work with children, an essential aspect is problem solving within the fundamental family relationships and addressing the ethical dilemmas that arise in such situations.This essay will explore the relevance of ethical theory to social work practice, specifically in the area of working with children aged 0- 12 living in out of home care. This type of care encompasses a range of options including foster care, kinship care and residential homes. Within the field of child protection the “long term goal is for social workers to assist families who are currently not looking after their children well enough to be able to do so, and to help those children grow into stable and productive adults (2014).

Ethical theory enhances our ability to be critical about our practice. In the area of child protection, critical skills are vitally important and a solid foundation in ethical theory is integral for practitioners to do meaningful work. Ethical theory is important as it gives social workers the language and ability to critically reflect on and share why they do what they do in their practice, and how they make ethical decisions when faced with a dilemma. Deontological, teleological, and virtue based ethical theories each provide a way of understanding and dealing with ethical dilemmas. I will argue that a comprehensive knowledge and integration of multiple theories is most useful to address the myriad of complex ethical dilemmas that social workers contend with when working with children in out of home care.

A strong ethical basis for social work comes from a deontological perspective, which is defined as acting out of a sense of duty or obligation (2006). As a society it is our duty to ensure that children are safe and well cared for. Deontological ethics gives a strong basis for child protection as it reiterates that a person has intrinsic worth and that children are not worth any less than an adult, therefore their care and concerns are equally valid. The moral principle of having respect for persons has been translated into the policy and laws that protect children. From a deontological perspective, an action is judged and measured in comparison to universal moral rules. Drawing from a deontological perspective we can agree that a person is of worth regardless of whether we like, or agree with them. From a practical approach this has ramifications for the ways in which we interact with parents and caregivers involved in the foster care system. Deontological ethics provides a theoretical basis for maintaining a respectful approach towards these stakeholders in the child's care throughout the process.

Although deontological ethics has some strong foundational benefits in terms of the duty to care for children and the respect for persons, it is not without its faults. Due to this deontological

ethics does not work as a stand alone perspective from which we draw our practice and decisions in situations of ethical dilemmas. From a deontological perspective, consequences may be seen as irrelevant. In ( authors that wrote about writing about children in foster care she notes that, instead of focusing on the end result people were quick to work from a deontological perspective and take action which overall had detrimental affect on the caring relationships ().

Context is an important aspect to consider when in making ethical decisions and deontological thinking does not leave much scope for varying cultural expectations.

Deontological theories of ethics lays a solid foundation for child protection but it lacks the flexibility and nuanced approach needed to address complex family situations. Deontological ethics is not a productive way to contend with ethical dilemmas as all duties remain equally important, therefore it gives no clear guidance as to what to do when one duty comes into conflict with another and a choice must be made between the two ( ).

A second area of ethical theory relevant to social work is teleological ethics, which is focused on the outcomes of actions rather than the inherent moral quality of the action itself. A teleological ethical view is relevant to child protection as we are interested in pursuing the best outcomes for the child and family while also minimising harm. The work of child protection is very much centred around the teleological outcomes from an adult's actions and the resulting effect this has on the child. The abuse that can arise from a parent exercising their rights to self determination is not acceptable and it is the role of the social worker to step in and prevent this for the greater good and protection of the child (). A negative aspect to be mindful of with teleological thinking is that that we cannot accurately anticipate all outcomes. Through experience in the field we can try to predict and anticipate the outcome but with so many variables this is an impossibility.

In contrast to the two previously mentioned ethical theories, virtue ethics is not manifested through acting out of a sense of duty, and it is is not preoccupied with what the end result may be, but instead virtue ethics chooses an action from the multiple options available because the action in itself is a virtuous one. Virtue ethics are concerned with the individual’s character and actions, and the ways in which virtuous character traits can be further developed and strengthened ( ). Young and her colleagues specify that in working with children and their parents, the overall goal is to build up parents in their capacity to parent their children, something which can be modelled and explicitly spoken about through the language of virtues (2014). The practical applications of virtue ethics in child protection can be related both to the social worker, and the parent/carers of the child.

Virtue ethics explains what values we should have and what principles should guide our actions ( ). Virtue ethics is particularly relevant to the social worker when critically examining their own practice. Working in difficult circumstances requires many virtues, and is something that we should be mindful to cultivate if we are to be a successful agent of change and a champion for social justice. The author makes the argument that virtues that are needed for practice are best developed within practice (2003). Some of the virtues relevant to child protection work are courage, patience, encouragement, gentleness, perseverance and wisdom. All of these virtues are worth being mindful of when interacting with children, caregivers, parents, and other agency staff. Virtue ethics encourages us to examine our actions, and think critically about them instead of simply following the rules out of a sense of duty or principle (). The benefit of virtue ethics

in practice is best summarised as: “the internal good of social work is that you have developed the skills to effectively support your clients to achieve their goals, and the satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that skillfully engaging in this practice has contributed to the flourishing of others that you have committed yourself to serving ( 2016). After examining some of the main ethical theories, the question remains as to how do we take theory into practice, specifically in what ways can ethical theories guide ethical decision making?

Ethical theories are useful in all social work, but particularly in the case of an ethical dilemma. An ethical dilemma occurs when neither outcomes are favourable and none of the options available are without moral costs (et al). Particularly relevant to child protection is the reality that when making ethical choices, inaction and choosing not to intervene in a situation does not occupy some sort of ethical area of ambiguity but in and of itself is a choice with consequences that must be accounted for.

Working in child protection presents many choices and actions that need to be accounted for, and children who have been removed from their parents care are not done so in a lightly considered way. In this field of social work, ethical dilemmas are bound to arise, particularly as a social worker when you are dealing with many stakeholders with different points of view, including the biological parents, the child, the foster parent or carers, extended family and friends, other social workers, legislation and legalities, and the agency policies and priorities. As Bowles et al state; “complex real-world problems demand subtle and flexible approaches” (2006) therefore a strong basis in a multitude of ethical theories will provide the best results, and a flexible and readily adaptive social worker.

Ethical decision making is determined firstly by a set of rules which define our duties and rights such as those set out in the code of ethics (). The principle of self determination which is central in social work is based on a deontological view that individuals possess a capacity for reason and can make rational choices and decisions about what is in their best interests. However, the conflict occurs when adults are making decisions that are not in the best interest of the children in their care.

It is important to address some of the specific issues that arise when working with children in the 0-12 age range. Working from a deontological standpoint we value the importance of respect for persons and self determination, however we need to think about ways in which we can address agency and competency in this age bracket? (2014). There is a strong need for social workers in this area to understand children, their developmental milestones and the effect that abuse and neglect can potentially have on delaying this. Wilkins points out that there is a lack of confidence surrounding social workers in their direct work with children (2012). Age is not the best indication of a child’s ability to comprehend and be involved with making decisions. Inclusion in decision making needs to be determined by competency and agency, something that can only be determined after getting to know the child and their understanding of the situation they are in. Cultural diversity is also an important factor in regards to what is deemed to be ‘age appropriate’ also needs to be noted when working with a diverse population from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

(2012) raises an issue in foster care, stating that ‘ in some situations, pursuing a formal complaint is not the best way forward’ as situations for young people can sometimes get worse instead of improving. A deontological perspective would adhere to the policy and place a complaint however, teleological ethics would urge us to consider alternative routes for a more favourable outcome. Young et al make it clear that there is a broader scope to social work beyond dealing with the immediate circumstances, and choices need to be make that ensure as best as possible; the child’s development, parental participation in decision making, family care, and retaining their cultural identity (2016). This type of thinking provides a more holistic framework for social work which considers the micro, meso and macro implications and influences in each situation.

In conclusion, we have examined how deontological, teleological and virtue based ethics bring a different perspective to making ethical decisions. Each ethical theory has its positives and negatives, however by having a strong theoretical base, we can continue to build our practice and are equipped with the language and intellectual capacity to respond to complex situations in practice. As part of our ongoing professional development, Gray points out that ethical discussions are enriched by having a variety of influences and theories to draw upon (2014).



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